Book review: Kicking Off in North Korea

by Dan on September 8, 2017

Saturday sees Cardiff City come to Craven Cottage attempt to win their sixth game out of sixth in what has been an incredible start to the Championship campaign for the Bluebirds. It also appeared an appropriate time to review one of the finest football books I’ve read in a while – almost a globetrotting tour-de-force of the beautiful game and some not-quite-so-pretty geopolitics by former journalist, Cardiff City and Wales fanatic Tim Hartley. This site has always indulged the idea that the true football fan’s eye is cast wider than that of their own team and that’s why I think this book belongs on these pages.

I’ve known Tim for a while as he’s a regular at the various supporter conferences and events that see fans push for more influence in the modern game. He was one of the driving forces behind an ultimately successful campaign to see Cardiff return to playing in their traditional blue kit – having switched to red at the behest of their breathtaking bizarre chairman Vincent Tan – and has recently stepped down as the chair of the Cardiff City Supporters’ Trust. Tim also ventures right around the world to watch Wales, which means we both share an adoring love of Chris Coleman, and his charity work in support of the Welsh supporters’ charity Gol! is simply incredible.

Tim’s travels are not just about the football and finding a good boozer. He’s written a number of books before but this one, intriguingly entitled Kicking Off in North Korea, grabbed my attention from the moment it was mentioned to me by a Welsh-supporting work colleague. He’d read Tim’s chronicling of the remarkable journey to the Euro 2016 semi-finals, which unfortunately is a little more difficult if you don’t speak Welsh, and said that this one would be worth a look as well. I finally got my hands on a copy during the Supporters Summit in Burton this summer – and it proved so absorbing that I read half the book in one sitting that night.

The book belongs to a genre of football writing that first appealed to me as an inquisitive schoolkid. Nick Hornby’s Fever Pitch is a domestic classic, but accounts that placed football in a social or political context – especially in foreign climbs – fascinated me. I devoured Simon Kuper’s outstanding Football Against the Enemy in a week and greatly enjoyed the American writer Joe McGuiness’s Miracle of Castel di Sangro. It certainly isn’t a stretch to put Hartley’s effort in that company. It is definitely diverse enough – we are taken to the Middle East, the former Yugoslavia, Azerbaijan, Kenya, Bosnia, Georgia and Brazil to list just a few destinations – and introduced to paranoid security guards, football lovers, reindeers as well as activists who wish to change the world.

Football isn’t far away, even though Hartley rightly focuses on the shameful poverty or the favelas and just how unsafe some of his destinations are for the ordinary citizen. He expertly weaves in the tales of how he and his son Chester had different responses to Tan’s egotistical approach to running their beloved Cardiff almost as matter-of-factly as he describes the surreal scenes he encountered whilst watching football in North Korea, where his attempts at introducing British chanting proved unsuccessful. A passion for the game and its impact on our local communities shines through on each page.

I felt like I knew Tim, the football fan, before I read this book. But I’ve learned more about a very special man as he takes the reader on one mesmerising journey after another. The joy of the tale comes often from the people he means and the stories they recount that often leave you pausing for thought. It is almost as if Hartley had set out to answer his mother-in-law, who – we learn courtesy of the publisher’s blurb about the author – asked him: ‘How many trips of a lifetime can you have, boy?’ Going by this book, the only suitable reply has to be, not enough.

Kicking Off in North Korea: Football and Friendship in Foreign Lands by Tim Hartley is published by Ylolfa and is available here.

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